On a tree-lined riverbank in the Sarajevo district of Grbavica, Rabina Balti paused selling tubs of sweetcorn at her stall and gestured in disgust.
“Future?” she said. “There’s no future here! I have a university degree, but look how I work. We’ve lost hope. Every election, it’s all mixed — religion and politics.”
Twenty-eight years after the end of its internecine war that left 100,000 dead, Bosnia-Herzegovina votes today to elect a bewildering number of national and sub-national presidencies, parliaments and assemblies. Ethnic-nationalist parties representing the three main communities — Bosniak (Muslim), Serb and Croat — are expected to top the polls as they have at most previous elections since the political system was set up by the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement.
Hope that change would come to one of Europe’s poorest countries has dwindled. The average monthly wage is just over 400 euros (US$461), while unemployment stands at more than 20 percent, rising to more than 45 percent among young people. The grim economic situation is a major factor driving emigration from the country.
However, political frustrations are just as significant. People strolling the streets of Grbavica, a middle-class suburb once on the wartime frontline, express helplessness and bemoan the failure of Bosnia’s left-wing and multi-ethnic parties. The leading parties are accused of stoking tensions, while stuffing state-owned companies and the public administration with their supporters.
Adil Osmanovi, minister of civil affairs and a member of the Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action, which leads the government and tops the polls among Bosniaks, says the government has raised economic growth, created nearly 21,500 jobs in the past year and made progress in preparing the way for an application for EU membership.
However, even some party loyalists are losing the faith. Husein Hrapovi, 75, was one of the first Party of Democratic Action members when the party was founded in 1990, joining it “because it was a kind of Muslim movement.”
“There have been scams and vote theft,” he said in the shop in Sarajevo’s bazaar district where he has worked for 55 years. “Now the party has its own people, who get jobs in state-owned companies. I don’t believe there’s a future. There are a lot of poor people and a lot of corruption. There could be another war in the next 10 years.”
Not everyone is so pessimistic.
Denijal Sahinovic, a young businessman with a small print shop in Sarajevo, said he worked across the country with business partners and customers of all ethnicities with no animosity.
“I am optimistic that if we trade enough, we can fix this country,” he said. “But international people used to come to our classrooms and say that we were the future, and then people saw the easy route to jobs and money through the system.”
Bosnia-Herzegovina has fewer than 3.5 million voters, but thanks to the complicated web of ethnopolitical structures put in place by the Dayton Peace Agreement that brought the war to an end, next month’s elections are to choose a national parliament, three members of the national presidency, the parliaments of the country’s two entities — the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the predominantly Bosniak and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina — and 11 other assemblies.
A citizen can only be a member of the presidency if they declare themselves to be Bosniak, Serb or Croat — barring those who declare as Jewish or Roma or merely Bosnian from becoming head of state.
“Dayton installed software that is outdated and has served its purpose,” Osmanovi said, adding that thanks to the level of devolution, the country has 14 ministries of agriculture.
Yet, others see it as the price to pay for peace.
Attempts to change the status quo with international support have run aground. Plans to reform the political system were shelved and a “reform agenda” focusing on economic liberalization was launched by the EU and international financial institutions in 2015, with the UK and Germany the leading proponents. This has failed to meet expectations and one international diplomat in Sarajevo refers to the EU’s attempts to grapple with Bosnia as “fucking useless.”
Concerns have grown about Russia’s influence in the Republika Srpska. Milorad Dodik, who has been the effective leader of the party for over a decade and is the leading candidate to be the Serb member of the national presidency, met with Vladimir Putin in Russia on Sunday last week, reportedly securing the Russian president’s backing for his election.
However, the Republika Srpska government and Aleksandar Vui, the president of neighboring Serbia, have accused Western powers of “meddling” in the Bosnian elections.
Similar claims are leveled at neighbor Croatia. Sefik Dzaferovic, presidential candidate for the Party of Democratic Action, has attacked Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic for alleged interference in Bosnia’s internal affairs.
Many ethnic Croats in Bosnia feel that the political system discriminates against them. While ethnic Serbs have their own entity, the Republika Srpska, Croats and Bosniaks must share the other, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where tactical voting can allow the Croat member of the presidency to be chosen by Bosniak votes.
Dragan Covic, the nationalist Croat member of the presidency, has lobbied for a third entity — Croat — saying that this would put his ethnic group on an equal footing with Bosniaks, but critics fear it would further add to Bosnia’s centrifugal forces.
These concerns have been amplified in the past few months by a potential partition or “land swap” deal between Serbia and Kosovo, which some fear could set a precedent for the Republika Srpska to leave Bosnia.
Dodik has repeatedly called for the Republika Srpska to break away, although he has toned down his rhetoric. He is also under mounting pressure due to continuing demonstrations over the mysterious death of a 21-year-old.
“Dodik doesn’t know how to do politics without tension,” said Branislav Borenovi, leader of the Party of Democratic Progress. “He doesn’t talk about education, agriculture or everyday life. We don’t have time or energy to waste on new conflicts.”
In Istono Sarajevo, part of the capital that lies in the Republika Srpska, many support independence, but without great enthusiasm, with day-to-day concerns weighing more heavily.
“I think it’s definitely a good idea to divide, because things just aren’t the same since the war,” said Zeljana Vaskovi, a 24-year-old unemployed woman. “Even the youth are divided. People naively vote, thinking that they will change things, but politicians only know how to steal money.”
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